In San Diego, two members of a Mexican drug cartel were recently convicted of dissolving victims in vats of hydrofluoric acid. Dismembered bodies are sometimes left on the avenues of Mexico’s cities as warnings to rival gangs, and border patrol officers offer tales of dead babies, stuffed with baggies of heroin and then sewn back up to be sent across the border. Horrifying brutality is committed routinely for drug money.

The United States has responded to these human rights abuses and other horrors of drug use by vilifying all drugs. Since President Nixon declared the War on Drugs four decades ago, our police force has militarized to combat the growing market. The scope of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) alone is now massive. Its budget is nearly $3 billion, and its powers now range from home raids and wiretaps to extradition and inter-border wars, and its power is most likely even further reaching than we know.

The War on Drugs has received over $1 trillion in funding since its inception, and taxpayers have seen little return on their investment. In fact, illicit drug use in the US has steadily increased. The War on Drugs has certainly made very little progress despite its immense resources, but its greatest cost has not been financial. The fundamental strategy of the War on Drugs—prohibition—has done little but force the drug industry underground. Law enforcement has little power over black markets, giving organized crime the opportunity to fulfill demand for illegal drugs in their own terms. In its pursuit to suppress the drug trade, prohibition has made the drug trade more dangerous and has helped the black market thrive.

Prohibition forms violent crime monopolies

Most people are not willing to risk their reputation, livelihoods, and freedom to participate in illegal activities. However, there almost always remains some group of people willing to break the law, and the de facto monopoly caused by the clearing out of all legal competition only raises the incentive for these illegal suppliers to remain in the market. Also, those people who are willing to break the law in the first place are far less likely to have qualms about breaking other laws.

In The Limits of the Criminal Sanction, Stanford law professor Herbert L. Packer wrote, “[W]hen we make it illegal to traffic in commodities, the effect is to secure a kind of monopoly profit to the entrepreneur who is willing to break the law.”[8] Monopolies have market power, which is the source of great profits that make crime lucrative and, in turn, worthwhile. The diagram on the previous page depicts how monopolies have the market power to raise the price to a point higher than a competitive market would otherwise dictate.

Violence flourishes under prohibition

There exists no legal recourse for property crimes, coercion, and violence in a black market. Consequently, players can and must use force to protect their share of the market. “Because contracts involving illicit goods are unenforceable in a court of law, only the threat of brute force can ensure the fulfillment of a contractual bargain,” said Nora V. Demleitner, Dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law.

It is not realistic for each individual to privately take their own defensive and enforcement measures; it is far more efficient to have an ultimate enforcer. Protection is an economy of scale, because there is low additional cost incurred in expanding the use of violence. This characteristic further contributes to the monopolistic tendencies within the black market.

Long-run monopolies would actually decrease violence. However, law enforcement targets the most monopolistic drug trafficking organizations, since they are a key source of drugs and violence. Constantly toppling these monopolies of protection and drug-selling territory leaves the black market in constant violent competition.

We’ve seen all of this before

The United States tried prohibition before, and the 1920s ban on alcohol led to a great surge in the power of organized crime groups. According to Demleitner, in the time period that the Volstead Act was in effect, “loosely-organized groups turned into well-organized, structured enterprises”, which collusively split territories geographically to avoid competition.

Furthermore, one of the greatest legacies of the United States’ alcohol prohibition was the expansion of crime structure into the legitimate, everyday world. Even after Prohibition ended, organized crime remained far more prevalent and powerful than it had been before the ban. The money that gangsters earned during Prohibition allowed them to invest more capital in other illegal activities, such as prostitution, gambling, and the very substances that the War on Drugs is fighting today.

The drug cartels that have dominated Central and South America for the past four decades have demonstrated a similar evolution. In the late 1970s, when the War on Drugs began, the illegal cocaine industry skyrocketed; by 1982, cocaine had surpassed coffee as an export and made up an estimated 30 percent of all Colombian exports. The the new class of wealthy drug lord purchased enormous swathes of land to launder their drug money and gain social status among the elite. By the late 1980s, drug traffickers were among the largest landholders in Colombia and wielded immense political power. At one point, the leader of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar, became president of Colombia’s congress.

The War on Drug’s strategy of prohibition is not only ineffective but at the root of many of the problems it exists to prevent. When prohibition is in effect, the quantity of drugs supplied and demanded changes very little and violent monopolies dominate the industry.

There is reason to believe that viable alternatives to prohibition exist. Recent decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has been hurting drug farmers and traffickers. This outcome follows predictions made by a 2012 study from the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, which concluded that proposals to legalize the recreational use of the drug in those states could cut Mexican drug cartels’ earnings by 30 percent.

While prohibition may be an intuitive answer to America’s drug problem, we must reflect upon its lack of progress and its unanticipated side effects. It is high time to reevaluate our strategy for combating real and perceived problems of the drug trade.